Review: Alice Madness Returns

Oh hi. Guess I’m kinda late on this one, seeing as it was released months and months and months ago and I’ve already finished it twice, but life events happened and I didn’t have the time. Summer jobs and house hunting does that.

ANYWAY

You may remember the first or second post I ever wrote on this blog was a review for American McGee’s Alice, a re-imagination of Lewis Carroll’s classic children’s book. It’s my favourite game ever, and I can practically play it in my sleep. The long-awaited (by me, anyway) sequel, Alice: Madness Returns follows on from the happenings in Alice.

Our heroine has been released from the asylum and is now going through therapy in the house of a psychiatrist in the less-than glamourous side of Victorian London. She drifts between her various contacts in the city, hoping to find out more about how her family died. However, her imagination has other ideas, and pulls her back into Wonderland, which has even bigger problems of its own. Ok, so not the biggest leap forward in terms of plot, seeing as that was exactly what happened last time.

Points for imaginative level design, right there.

But before you even think about that, you’ll probably notice Madness Returns is that it’s quite pretty- and sometimes, it’s downright gorgeous. The Vale of Tears level at the start is one of the prettiest things I’ve seen in a game in a long time. The flowers even open as you walk past them! It is SO nice to see game developers using colours other than brown and grey. When the game isn’t all pretty and green, it’s got character and ambience of its own, ranging from a steampunk tea factory to a very broken childs dollhouse.

You also get given a variety of interesting and imaginative weapons to play with- for example, a pepperpot that shoots bullets and a teapot that doubles as a grenade launcher. Despite the grenade launcher not really being useful, you have to appreciate the inginuity and imaginative thinking.

Another equally girly observation that filled me with glee was that Alice’s dress changes depending on the location.

*ahem*

That is where the list of positives ends, though. It really saddens me to say that this game might look pretty, but it’s also quite broken in a number of ways.

Call me lazy, but I shouldn’t have to go into the game’s files to tweak broken or missing coding. That’s why we have developers and such people- they’re supposed to do that. Obviously someone didn’t tell Spicy Horse that, because from what I’ve experienced and read, you’re pretty much guaranteed to encounter at least one bug. Now I’m aware that loads of games have bugs, and it’s not usually such a big deal. Maybe the worst that happens is a door doesn’t open right away and you have to run around the room for a bit (Dragon Age Origins did that one a lot). To have a default key config not work when you HAVE to use that one function to progress, however, is unforgivable.

That's ok, I don't even like dominos...

The majority of the gameplay is platforming- jumping from platform to platform, gliding on steam, double-jumping… you know what I mean. Pretty basic stuff, but it doesn’t always go the way you want it to and you’ll end up falling to your death. This will happen a lot… usually caused by Alice bouncing off the place you want to get to like a rubber ball.

There’s no grab animation, which would have probably shaved off a few hours from my game time and made me swear less. If a game relies on you reaching a platform to get somewhere, you’d think a grab action would have been the first thing they’d add. So you have these things, which already make the experience frustrating.

That’s when the length of the game becomes really noticable. It’s really too long for a game with a surprisingly small amount to do. It’s mostly linear, and there’s a few obviously tacked on collectibles like bottles and ‘memories’ from Alice’s life that don’t really do a whole lot- you wouldn’t miss anything if you didn’t get them. This means that there isn’t a lot to distract you from following the path… and that path will get boring. The chapter set in feudal Japan where you have to climb a mountain to reach Caterpillar is particularly long… coming in at (no-joke) an HOUR. I think maybe they decided to make it extra long so it actually felt like you were climbing a mountain. Which I could have imagined perfectly well by myself.

Having said all that though, the liniar side-scrolling parts are sometimes broken up with mini games, so it’s obvious that there was some attempt to change things about… but it just doesn’t work. These, like the rest of the gameplay, also go on forever, and so I found myself struggling to enjoy myself or even finish the game.

The Caterpillar is up another mountain.

The absolute worst thing about Madness Returns, however  is that it’s a massive tease. You see, every chapter plays out like this; you arrive in a new place and you meet a character you have to stop from doing bad things. You’ll spend the whole chapter getting to these people (which as I already mentioned takes a long time), and then just when you’re psyching yourself up for a boss battle, the game snatches the glorious confrontation away from you and gives you a cutscene to resolve the story. That’s not FAIR. You finally get your boss-fight craving satisfied at the end, but it won’t really make up for the 5 other possible ass-kickings you could have dealt out earlier.

These issues are a real shame, because if it wasn’t for them, Madness Returns could have been a great game. As it is right now, it’s mediocre at best. It saves itself with it’s intriquing story and beautiful enviroments, but it falls flat on everything else and will probably become stale very quickly. Also, it badly needs patching, because some of the bugs it could contain make the game almost impossible to play.

If you’re an Alice fan, you’ll probably enjoy the original a lot more. For people who don’t like having to deal with 2000s graphics, by all means rent it – it’s prettiness might win you over, if you have a lot of patience.

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